SARASOTA, Fla. -- The Orioles' most difficult spring decision revolves around a pitcher who is their No. 7 starter. Jose Mesa is out of minor-league options. Either the Orioles trade him, or risk losing him on waivers.
Mesa, 25, opened last season as the club's No. 2 starter, but the way things stand, he won't make this team. The rotation is set with five other righthanders, and veteran lefthander Dennis Rasmussen is the logical replacement if one of them gets hurt.
Problem is, Mesa can't be demoted without being exposed to the waiver process, which makes him available to every team. Infielder Juan Bell was in the same position last season, and the Orioles carried him the entire year to prevent him from getting claimed.
The argument to keep Mesa is far more compelling. The Orioles' starting rotation is suspect even with the additions of Rick Sutcliffe and Storm Davis. What's more, they have a history of developing All-Star pitchers for other teams.
Is Mesa the next Pete Harnisch? If so, then the Orioles must find a spot for him in their rotation. If not, they must trade him, getting a player in return instead of being forced to settle for a waiver price that won't exceed $50,000.
"I don't think we'd be afraid to trade him if we felt it would help us," assistant general manager Frank Robinson says. "We wouldn't be afraid to trade someone else to make room for him either. It's up to him. If he forces us to do something, it'll make us a better ballclub."
Right now Mesa is attracting only preliminary interest from other clubs, but the Orioles expect that to change once exhibition play begins. "He's got the arm you look for," assistant GM Doug Melvin says -- an arm that delivers a 92-mph fastball, not to mention a changeup, slider and curve.
Indeed, this could be the year Mesa establishes himself for good. He underwent elbow surgery in both 1988 and '89, and Robinson believes his past two seasons served mainly as rehabilitation. The elbow became inflamed as recently as last August, forcing him back to the disabled list.
Mesa finished 6-11 with a 5.97 era after leading the Orioles in wins, innings and strikeouts the first month. a six-week stint at Rochester did little to improve his fortunes. By season's end, he was increasing his dosage of pain-killing pills with each start.
Now, after another restful winter, Mesa expects to throw free and easy at last. "I don't think it's going to be bother me any more," he says of his elbow. "This is going to be the year for me. All I have to do is put it together."
Which makes his spring all the more critical. Not even the Orioles would be stupid enough to trade Mesa if he appears on the verge of a genuine breakthrough. But he's not suited to the bullpen, and it would take some creative shuffling to clear a spot for him in the starting rotation.
The most vulnerable starter -- the only vulnerable starter -- is Storm Davis. The Orioles won't drop him, not when they're paying $1.9 million of his $2.3 million salary. Yet they could move him to the bullpen, where he spent parts of the last two seasons in Kansas City.
That would create a surplus of righthanded setup men, which could lead to a trade of Mark Williamson, who always seems to be in demand. Williamson's value is down -- his 4.48 ERA last season was nearly two runs higher than his previous two years combined. Still, he could bring a prospect in return.
Mesa isn't the only starter who could force that scenario; Rasmussen could very well do the same, and so might a long shot like Arthur Rhodes. Mesa, however, is the one requiring an immediate decision, the one most difficult to dismiss.
"I remember a game in '90 in Milwaukee -- they had no chance," manager John Oates says. "For the last part of the '90 season, and the first part of '91, he pitched as well as anybody in the major leagues."
Of course, Mesa couldn't sustain his success, and former pitching coach Al Jackson said that was his biggest regret -- even though Ben McDonald experienced a similar decline. For his part, Mesa exonerates Jackson, saying, "I don't think it was his fault. It was my elbow."
If that's the case, then Mesa requires an especially long look this spring. For one reason or another, the Orioles lost Dennis Martinez and Mike Boddicker, Pete Harnisch and Mike Morgan. Now they need pitching more than ever. They can't afford to blow it with Jose Mesa.